Death: A Love Story
For those of you reading this, I want to help. If you are in the process of losing a parent, or dealing with the illness of a loved one, maybe you will find some comfort from my experiences.
I have titled this hub Death: A Love Story, for reason. During their final days, whether they can respond or not, it is imperative to remain in communication with the dying. Cherish those days. Continue to express your love. I believe it will benefit you both, and you will likely save yourself a world of regret.
I cannot overstate the importance of closure.
What follows are true-life ramblings with and about those who matter to me, as my father confronted the end of his life. He had been diagnosed seven years prior with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
I was, proudly, his first-born son.
To him this hub is respectfully and lovingly dedicated.
I am a writer by profession, and have been an avid diarist since childhood. No two conversations could better elucidate my relationship with my father than the two short exchanges that follow.
December 17, 1983. I was 19 years old, and had just returned from the movie Yentl, directed by and starring Barbara Streisand.
Dad: Did you like the movie?
Me: It was okay.
Dad: What about the music?
Me: There was this one song Streisand sang. Papa Can You Hear Me? I loved it. The rest, not as much.
Dad: I figured. I figured you would like that song.
Dad: I know you.
Me: Do you like it?
Dad: It’s okay.
Me: Does the song remind you of Gramps?
Dad: Not particularly.
Gramps, being my paternal grandfather, for clarity.
My father knew me better than anyone. I had a real soft spot for him. No, scratch that. I loved him. He was my real-life hero. And so, as I wanted to be a professional screenwriter, in my very first screenplay I exaggerated that reality.
This conversation took place the following morning, on December 18, after he had read my work:
Dad: Yeah, I read it.
Me: First script I ever wrote. Took about eight months. Coulda had a baby by then.
Dad: I’m very proud of you for completing it.
Me: That’s it?
Dad: An opinion you want too?
Dad: (pause) Let me ask you a question. What was the story about?
Me: I thought you read it.
Dad: I read it. Answer my question.
Me: Well, it was about a boy, whose dad plays a popular mid-1970’s television
Dad: Starman, go ahead.
Me: Starman, right. So one day, in an alcohol and drug-induced stupor, his dad walks off the set of his show and completely disappears. Everyone, even his own family, thinks he killed himself. Years later the son receives a mysterious phone call, and he realizes his dad is still alive. He goes on a quest to find him, never sure of his intentions should he succeed. In the end, love conquers all.
Dad: Right. Let me ask you another question.
Me: Okay …
Dad: I don’t understand why the boy’s father had to be an alcoholic and drug-addict.
Me: That’s the point. He didn’t appreciate what he had, and --
Dad: Is that how you see me?
Dad: You heard me. Is that how you see me?
Me: I … Why do you ask me that? Come on, of course not. You know tha—
Dad: I thought I did. I guess I just didn’t understand it. Good job completing it
though. You okay?
Me: I guess I’m just a little surprised.
Dad: Don’t be upset, Junius (short for Jewish genius; I called him Plops). I’m sure I’ll love the next one.
Me: I’m sorry … I just thought … That’s why it’s called The Better Part of Me, because of the redemption. He idolized his dad, but didn’t understand if it was him he looked up to or the character he played on TV who everybody else loved. That’s why I made him a superhero because in his son’s eyes that’s what he always was --
Dad: Oy, your mom’s calling for dinner already. Come on, I still love ya.
Me: But he idolized him. It’s sort of like what would be if George Reeves had a son. Don’t you get it?
Dad: Don’t you wanna eat?
We had a deal. We would be honest with one another because, he would say, most people tell others what they want to hear, as opposed to what they need to hear.
Words I’ve lived by. We will fast-forward from here.
Part One: The Decline Begins
January 6, 2010.
It was barely 5:30AM when I received the familiar call from my mother. She knew I arrived at my office early; there was no fear in waking me up.
“I don’t like bothering you or your brothers about this,“ she said, “but I’m telling you Dad isn’t right.”
“What happened? Talk to me.”
Mom’s been saying this for a few weeks now. I heard the panic in her voice, a desperate plea for understanding. “He’s just not your Dad,” she tried to explain.
“You mean … I was adopted?”
“I’m serious, Joel.”
“Sorry. It’s early.” Lame excuse. “What’s going on?”
“Well, the first thing is last night he woke up in the middle of the night and asked for sugar,” she said. “Then he asked me for the money.”
“What money, how do I know what money? That’s the point.”
“Was he sleepwalking, maybe?”
“I thought he was, but then this morning when he was supposed to put his pants on, he was ready to walk out of the house naked and he was fighting with me.”
Part Two: In Confidence
April 10, 2010
Months passed. My father’s decline hastened. As I did every day, I called him. We confided in each other.
Me: We gotta talk.
Me: This isn’t easy for me, Plops. I love you and this isn’t easy —
Dad: What isn’t easy?
Me: I’ve always been the only one who could talk to you this way … You can’t use the checkbook anymore, Plops. You’re just making too many mistakes lately …
Dad: Oh you think so, do you?
Me: C’mon, I’m not joking.
Dad: Who said I’m joking? Are you joking?
Me: Plops …
Dad: Junius …
Me: I’m sorry, but Mom’s gonna do the checks from here on.
Dad: Then let her do it.
I wasn’t sure how to take that, so I asked him a question that had been on my mind for weeks:
Me: Dad —
Dad: Oh, that’s serious. You never call me Dad.
Me: Are you scared?
Dad: What do I have to be scared about?
He didn’t skip a beat. We stayed on for awhile longer.
Me: I’m thinking of freezing my sperm. You think this has been easy on me?
Dad: You what?
Me: You heard me.
Dad: I did hear you. I’m just surprised, that’s all.
Me: Why? Why are you surprised? Don’t you think –
Dad: Yeah, I do.
Me: We have no kids, maybe we’ll get a dog one day but I’m figuring my swimmers could impregnate forty or fifty women —
Dad: Funny. But the idea, is this definite?
Me: I don’t know. Been tossing it around.
Dad: Well, just make sure to tell my daughter-in-law when you’re finished tossing.
You got me?
Me: I got you. I love you.
We discussed our past ... and our future.
Me: I was rebellious. That’s my excuse for everything bad you’ve ever thought about me.
Dad: You were never rebellious. You were a good kid.
Me: All right. Back to the subject. There’s nothing wrong with using Depends if you need them. You have an illness, and —
Dad: I know what I have, Junius. You don’t have to remind me.
Me: There’s nothing wrong with it, Plops.
Dad: I’ll let you know.
Me: It’ll be easier on Mom.
Dad: I’ll —
Me: I wouldn’t even mention it if I thought there was no dignity in it. What’s worse. You would tell me the same thing if there was something I was dealing with ...
Dad: My pain in the ass first-born, I love you. But like I said, leave me be for now.
I’ll let you know.
At nearly an hour, it was the longest phone call we had ever shared. Later that day, he called me.
Dad: What took you so long?
Me: A wild afternoon with my mistress. We shot it.
Me: It’ll be all over the internet by tomorrow.
Dad: Dream on.
Me: What’s going on, Plops?
Dad: You’re such a comedian, but I wouldn’t pay to see you. You do make me laugh though. Sometimes.
Me: Is everything okay?
Dad: Honestly? Nah … not really.
Me: Not really? You’re scaring me. What’s happening?
Dad: I need your help. You and your two brothers. I need you to help me with mom.
Me: I don’t understand …
Dad: God Bless your mother, but she gets so mad at me. And that sets me off. She needs to realize I can’t walk like I used to, I get tired and –
Me: She says you’re lazy and your brain is turning to mush. She says you don’t even do puzzles anymore. You understand she has a point. You’ve told me this.
Dad: I can’t … I can’t do right now … I need for everyone, for you guys and especially your mother, to understand … When I get over this, it’s one thing, but for now …
Me: What can we do?
Dad: Can you please talk to her? I love your mother, I know she means well. But this is very hard now … I know she’s doing everything to support me and I love her for it. If I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t know where I’d be. But she doesn’t need to suffer, and I don’t want to fight with her anymore …
He was upset, more so than I could ever recall. My father and I continued to speak daily, but he was clearly getting weaker.
Two weeks later, I pressed the blinking light on my voicemail. It was a message from my brother, Neil.
“Joel, call me,” he said, with no small degree of urgency. “Dad collapsed.”
Part Three: “Goodbye”
I traveled to Fort Lauderdale from Los Angeles to help my parents. Random thoughts, on my flight:
He wasn’t perfect.
He gave away our dogs growing up, whenever we moved long distances, helping us deal with loss. But was any of that necessary?
When he dies, my wife and I will buy a dog in his honor. We’ll call him Toodles.
I was doing what I could to steel myself for the inevitable. He had told me the night before, on the phone, that his doctor said he’d be “slowing down.”
He hadn’t been able to walk for weeks and he spoke in whispers.
For many years, my father told all his boys to always put their wives first. I would return to mine in seven days, and try my damndest to resume a normal life while playing the waiting game. On Day Seven of my trip, about two hours prior to my return flight, my father and I said goodbye.
My brothers would be arriving the following week.
On the way back to the airport, I told my mom it was okay to start letting go. “Why do you say that to me?” she cried. I was instantly guilt-ridden.
Dad entered hospice care nine days later.
Part Four: The Dream ... and the Call
January 10, 2011.
My eyes squinted open, and I looked up at my mom. This is it, I thought. “Tell me,” I said. Her face said it all, though I needed to hear it from her. “Tell me,” I repeated. Nothing. She clearly wanted to say something, but simply could not. “Please ... tell me.” Her face was contorting; my poor mom. She’s been through so much; I shouldn’t put her through this now. She continued to struggle. As did I. “Mom … tell me … Tell me! Tell me! TELL ME!!”
I had fully roused. “Tell me,” I cried. “Mom … please —“
I woke up from my Monday morning nightmare moments thereafter. I grasped for my glasses and looked at the clock. 3:01AM. Falling back asleep was useless. Lorie, my wife, was still deep in slumber. No surprise. I left the room, gently closed the door, and stumbled into my home office.
Once inside, I flicked on the lights. Everything as it was. Nothing had been altered in any way. I couldn’t focus and surfed the net, still troubled by the vivid images of minutes before. Now was not the time for anything constructive – a jump on the newest script, dishes in the sink. Instead, aintitcool.com, deadline.com, wrestlingobserver.com, AOL News … collectively my morning ritual. Nothing of any matter, save for the radio reporting a series of severe snowstorms ravaging the east coast.
It was barely two hours later when the phone rang. 5:22.
“Joel, it’s me.” My brother, Mike, calling from Florida. “Dad died.”
Part Five: The Mourning After
January 11, 2011.
I couldn’t sleep, and though the room was dark my eyes were open and I stared at the ceiling. Again, alone with my thoughts ...
I wish you never had to suffer. I gladly would have taken the risk. I told you I wanted to give you a piece of my liver. It would regenerate, according to the internet. Maybe the Florida doctors are risk-averse but Dad … I would have been okay. I would never lie to you.
Where are you, today, Dad? It’s over. I need you. Where the hell do you go when you die? It’s as dark as it was when I was a child and I couldn’t conceive of a world without you.
In this and this alone I can’t find the comedy. Where does that leave us now?
Can you hear me? I need you to focus, one last time. The hub is starting —
“Junius,” he said from the ether, “I’m here and I’m doin’. I’m okay. Let me go.“
He once that to me over the phone, losing patience during one of his hospital stays. He hated that hospital. Not that anyone could blame him, of course. But as the disease began to take its toll, our long phone conversations became short and curt. And they almost all ended the same way.
“Let me go.”
Yet, he couldn’t wait to see me when I visited. He would stay up at night and ask my mom if Joel was here. According to my mom, he would then go back to sleep, disappointed, before he woke her with requests like a shower, or his walker so he could go to the bathroom.
Lorie and I arrived in New York’s JFK Airport 48 hours later for the funeral. My parents had long ago purchased two plots in New Jersey. We almost didn’t make it due to the snowstorms throughout much of the east.
Once picked up from the airport, I told my mom I still intended to become an organ donor. I would donate a piece of my liver while living, as I had wanted to do with my dad. She was emphatic that “Jews do not do that.” Or something.
I wondered for a minute if that was the real reason my dad turned me down. I thought it was the doctors‘ thought. At the time, they told me he was “likely too far gone.” I went to my dad right after. He refused me when I asked him.
Part Six: Eulogy
The following eulogy was delivered on January 13, 2011, to a full chapel on a snowy Staten Island Thursday ...
by Joel Eisenberg
Mom is crying; Dad couldn’t dance with her at the party last night.
There is a shift in the winds. It wasn’t all that long ago that Mom and Dad were in Los Angeles, on vacation to spend time with two of their three children. Sure, Dad was tired when we visited The Getty Center, and he was having a difficult time keeping track of specifics in his checkbook, which was unusual for someone heretofore so detail-oriented. However, he was still recognizably Richard Eisenberg, my father. My beloved father. Just, perhaps, a slower version.
But weeks later he didn’t have the strength to dance with my mom. It was now clear that his family’s heads and hearts had to cultivate a new acceptance. Dad’s illness was progressing, rapidly, and he wasn’t going to be around much longer.
My love for my dad has been very deep, and very profound; I could only hope I leave everyone listening to these words today with an understanding as to why, though those of you present who knew my dad when he was healthy also know well that simple words could never do him justice.
Yet as his first-born it is my honor … to honor his memory.
Several weeks ago I traveled to Florida from Los Angeles to visit my parents. Following what would prove to be one of our final encounters, I wheeled my dad’s chair, his wheelchair, back to his car. I had spent the prior two days wheeling him in and out of his apartment; this time, though, his chair was empty. It was late at night, and he had just been admitted – again- into the hospital. In moments I would fold the chair and place it in the trunk, my tears spilling over the likelihood that one day soon this chair, my dad’s chair, would be donated and used for someone else. I walked as quickly as I could; my mom and Toby were behind me. I didn’t want to expose myself that evening, after all, I was supposed to be the Rock of Gibraltar. I was there to support my mom and dad in their time of need. Well, Gibraltar cracked that night, and no one was on to me.
To appreciate the significance that that chair holds to me … requires jumping back in time to an event that took place 40 years before. My parents, myself, four year old Mike and Neil, barely a year, up and moved to Aurora, Colorado, from Brooklyn, New York. I was seven years old and had become quite ill with acute asthma. To give me a fair chance at a good life, my dad transferred his employment to Colorado. He and my mom hoped that my asthma would be cured by moving to the Mile High City. They had little money; we had been living in the Sheepshead Bay Projects but the risk was worth it for him. I was not well. I had to be wheeled in a baby stroller at seven years old, placed in the car, then transferred from the car to the stroller again as we made our way to and through the airport. Ultimately he and my mom proved to be right. Aside from an occasional flare, I had outgrown my asthma. Their plan worked.
I reflected on that experience as I folded his wheelchair, flashing back to how much he sacrificed by giving me a fair chance. There goes the rent control, the job security … I had spent the prior few days pushing my dad in that wheelchair. He wasn’t so strong anymore, but I now prayed like a child for my dad, at 70 years old, to outgrow his illness, just like I had so many years before. This way, he could one day stand again and discard the chair on his own, just as I had with the stroller.
But it was not to be. That miracle simply did not happen ... though keep in mind I am prone to believe in the occasional miracle. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Dad had a difficult childhood. His parents, my grandparents, divorced while he strived for stability. So, as he raised his family, he was bound and determined to cultivate nothing less than a tightly-knit, loving and respectful unit. Dad could be tough, he could be stubborn. But somehow, against the odds, he became the most natural and most loving of all fathers. Now make no mistake, my brothers and I got ours and got it good if we misbehaved … but the punishment was always tempered with love. He just wanted us to be the very best we could be. In fact, he always believed that his greatest achievement, something he and my mom have always been so proud of, is that they raised three good boys and maintained the closest of all families …
I learned so much from him. I idolized him, yet it is not uncommon for a young boy to idolize his father. As a child, I believed my dad was the strongest man there ever was. No one, no one, could beat him in arm wrestling. No one was stronger. No one could possibly be smarter.
When I was not yet a teen, we built models together. Plastic models of monsters, boats and airplanes. We made the best models. And did I ever look forward to working with him.
During that time, I was a Cub Scout. My mom was a den mother. We had an event coming up where we had to make hotrods out of wood. All the Cub Scouts would then race their hotrods, in front of an audience of friends, parents, other Scouts and Scout leaders. This would be my very first competition, sure to set the stage for many winning years to come, and we were in it together. Dad helped me build my hotrod. Yet we did not come in first, as I had hoped. Nor second, nor third. If memory serves, we came in last …
However, I had never been more proud, up to that time, of my dad. We both worked on our vehicle so carefully. We joked, we laughed … and we bonded, as always.
We didn’t place first, and you know what? It didn’t matter … Because I learned a valuable lesson that day. My dad was not the superhero whose adventures I devoured in the latest comic books. I learned that my dad was human.
It is difficult to convey just how profound a realization this was. The floodgates opened. Being human suddenly explained why he sometimes expressed disappointment, when disappointed – maybe he didn’t win all the time – he showed anger when he was angry, sadness when upset … joy when happy, like when he spent quality time with family. He commended me for working hard, and professed that he was really, really proud of me. He must have been. My mom found this in their house on December 29th of last year. He kept it, after all this time.
Dad worked most of his life to support my mom, my brothers, Mike and Neil, and myself. He commuted several hours each day for many years. But he still built my hotrod for me. He always made the time …
I had learned that my dad was human. Several years later, I would learn what it meant to be a human being.
We made a trip to Disney World. As we were waiting for the tram, to take us to the attractions, a teenage boy, maybe my age but clearly disabled, was giddily jumping up and down. “We’re going to Disneyworld, we’re going to Disneyworld,” he shouted, many times over. His father was visibly uncomfortable at the display, his eyes darting back and forth to see if anyone had been staring.
My dad turned to the boy, as I and others around us were laughing. We didn’t know any better … Dad turned to him, the boy caught his gaze and became increasingly agitated. As his father went to retrieve him, my dad, very calmly, spoke to the boy.
“You’re going to Disney World?” he asked.
“Yes … yes! We’re going to Disney World, we’re going to Disney World!”
“Are you going to have fun today?” my dad asked.
“Yes, we’re gonna have fun! We’re going on the rides!”
“Good; it’s good to have fun on the rides,” said my dad. “You have a great day, okay?”
The other dad, embarrassed when he needn’t have been, nodded to mine, who smiled back, instantly putting him at ease. I watched this and was immediately ashamed of myself. While others continued to laugh and point, for a couple of memorable moments my dad treated the boy like he was family.
I considered it then as now a lesson about acceptance.
He used to address all three boys:
“One day, you’ll have lives of your own. You’ll understand.”
I met my Besharit, my wife, Lorie; Mike and Jennifer, Neil and Randy have nephews we love very much – Justin, Matthew and Ethan - all of whom are growing up as we had, with my dad’s values, with my dad’s morals.
He taught me how to drive. He taught us all self-reliance. I, along with Mike and Neil, was expected to make mistakes. We were also expected to learn from our mistakes so we could better appreciate and savor our victories. Another valuable lesson, among many valuable lessons.
Dad loved to laugh at my stupid jokes. In fact, he was one of the very few who appreciated my perverse sense of humor. That was because he shared my perverse sense of humor. People always said I was his twin, so that old chestnut always came in handy with him. “Remember, Dad, it’s not a bald spot; it’s a solar panel for a sex machine.” He would respond with something along the lines of, “So what’s your excuse?”
Some years ago my mom was in the hospital for a procedure. Now, she was always the cook of the clan. But in her absence, where did that leave us? Well, what Dad and my brothers and I affectionately referred to throughout the ensuing decades as “Daddy’s Slop,” was an historic concoction made of every leftover in the fridge, covered with tomato sauce. We ate it, and we were supposed to love it. Or we would starve. But there was a quality in him that even back then we all recognized as disarming. Tough but tender. We never went out to eat much, and we were used to home cooking. To this day I believe that he thought he was on to something. Daddy’s Slop never made a return appearance, and we were all thrilled when mom finally came home, but for whatever reason that particular recipe, dad’s first and only culinary effort, has remained legendary in our family.
We respected him immensely, because he respected us immensely. What a caregiver he was. Not only for us boys and my mom, but also his parents when they were older, his sister, my mother’s mother, my aunt … the list goes on and on. When it was his turn to be taken care of … we were all there for him. So many people in this room, via phone calls and visits, have of late expressed their love to my parents, saying they would do anything for Nettie and Rich. I love you all for that. And I thank you for that. And I also thank his doctors, Cohen and Skoshalis, who went above and beyond for him.
Over the past year I spoke to him almost every day. But there was one day that I missed, and when I did I got an earful. “I want you to call me everyday. I want to hear your voice …” he said.
I don’t believe I missed a day since.
Time went on, and things became tougher, as expected. But earlier I referenced a miracle, and when my dad was still lucid he received a bit of unexpected news that, knowing him, must have made him glow inside. He was about to become a grandpa for the fourth time, thanks to Mike and Jen. Little Ethan is about to have some company.
I’m convinced Dad’s awareness of the upcoming birth of this special child kept him going a little longer, and he needed all the good news he could get. His last months were dark, very, very dark as the illness gradually robbed him of his body and spirit. Something I heard him say in the final months was in the midst of delirium, but I prefer to believe there was something profound in the message. I was on the telephone with my mom, who was having a difficult time with him that day. He yelled in the background that he wanted to go outside and walk, yet he was in horrific physical shape. My mom asked, “Where do you want to go out, Rich? Where do you want to go?” What he said I’ll never forget. What he said was, “I want to go out to a different color …”
The last time I saw my dad, on Christmas afternoon, I asked my mom and my cousin, Harriet, to leave me alone with him for a private moment in his hospital room. I closed the door, then stepped over to him, trying my utmost not to cry. I leaned over and hugged him; he was so weak he could barely hug back. His sharp whiskers brushed against mine and I said, “I love you … and I’m proud to be your son.” I didn’t want to go any further than that, as I didn’t want him to think I was in any way saying ‘goodbye.’ He said back to me, in a tired voice, “I love you too. And I’m proud to be your father.” My eyes misted – I wasn’t entirely successful at holding it in but considerably better than expected - and we both laughed. At what, I could never relay; it wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. It was just another special moment between the father I nicknamed Plops, and the first-born son he nicknamed Junius.
It is not uncommon for a man to idolize his dad. IF his dad is sincere, hardworking and always there. You have always been sincere. You have never been anything less than hardworking. And you are still here. And so am I. Always. And you are still my hero.
I could only imagine how you felt when you initially held your first-born child. I’d like to thank you, Dad, for every blessing I’ve received since. I will continue to abide by your lessons, and I will, as ever, strive to meet the potential you saw in me when we made eye contact for the very first time.
Most importantly, I promise Mom will be well taken care of. Your three children will look after her, and make sure to always be there for her. We will keep her safe, and we will do our utmost to keep her strong. I understand Mom’s unending devotion and dedication to your well-being certainly merits much more than a passing mention here, so I will share a secret for her benefit; I hope you don’t mind. In some of our phone conversations during the difficult times, you let me know … that though you were frustrated and sometimes angry … you let me know how you so appreciated Mom’s efforts, and how especially loved you felt during your surprise 70th Birthday celebration. In our final phone conversation, when I asked you told me through stuttered speech that Mom looked beautiful. You were tired, and there was no hint of inhibition. That was your heart talking. You see, your amazing 48-year romance with that beautiful woman will never fade … it will only get stronger with time. And Mike, Neil and I … we’ll continue to make you both very proud.
Dad, you have my word. After all, we will still speak everyday …
I will readily acknowledge that this has been a very long hub. My purpose for posting it, though, is two-fold:
1) I was compelled to honor my dad this morning; and
2) I wanted to share with HubPages readers my personal experiences as it regards losing a parent.
My reason for the latter is I have been reading a great deal about people who are unsure how to emotionally handle the dying of a loved one. I do not profess to have all the answers, or any for that matter, but my expressing love when that love was most needed is something I believe I should share.
Consider this to be a sincere effort to help.
I have seen time and again what lack of closure does to a person. I embraced my father when he was alive. I embraced him though the process of dying. And I continue to embrace him today, over seven years since his passing.
If you are fortunate to have shared a positive relationship with a parent who is now ill, or dying, keep that relationship positive. You are needed now more than ever. If you are not, or have not been, as fortunate, the time to forgive is now.
These words are not religiously-driven. Though Jewish, I hold no formal religious beliefs. I prefer to think of myself as a human being who does what he can to help others. My father was in hospice care in his last days. He was well-cared for. I’m convinced he felt the love all around.
Though none of us are in any rush, we’ll all get there soon enough.
The adage: Treat others as you would want others to treat you will never hold greater weight.
As ever, thank you for reading.